Edward FitzGerald is remembered now for one thing only: he translated The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, probably the best selling — and therefore most popular? — poem in English. Yet, to my mind, his life is more interesting than his poetry. He was a rich man who never had to work (never did) yet there is about his life something so redolent of rural Victorian England that his full length biography should be required reading for anybody interested in the subject. Here, I've kept close to A C Benson's 1905 book about him because he had, I think, an affinity with FitzGerald, and the clearest insight into him.

Edward FitzGerald was born Edward Purcell, in 1809, in Suffolk. His parents were first cousins. Both were Anglo-Irish. John Purcell was a descendant of Oliver Cromwell; his wife of the Earls of Kildare. In 1818 she became the richer of the two, through an inheritance, upon which Purcell changed all their names to hers. (Edward never liked it.) Between them they owned estates in Lancashire, Suffolk, Sussex, Northamptonshire, and Ireland. They had eight children. Edward was seventh.

John FitzGerald (né Purcell) was Member of Parliament for Seaford in Sussex. He seems to have been a bit feckless, eventually ruining himself through his own folly. His wife, says Benson, was superb and majestic, with a haughty face, eagle nose, and thin mouth. She was such a leading light in London society she rarely saw her children as they grew up in a Jacobean mansion on a FitzGerald estate near Woodbridge in Suffolk. Later writers blame his childhood unhappiness — the whippings, the absence of his cold, imperious mother — as well as his gayness (at a time when it had to be denied or hidden) for his later eccentricity. Benson, a fellow-Victorian and also gay, disagreed — or rather it never occurred to him in the first place. He put it all down to temperament. His childhood was happy, he claims, full of incident and adventure. The boy knew Paris, loved the sea, the theatre, books, and the countryside, huge tracts of which his family owned. He was a lifelong collector of friends. He made them early and late throughout his life. "I am an idle fellow," he said of himself many years later, "of a very ladylike turn of sentiment: and my friendships are more like loves, I think."

He began making friends as a small child at Woodbridge on the River Deben. Major Moor was a stout old Indian Army man in a white hat several sizes too big, carrying a cane cut from the timber of HMS Royal George. He was available at all times for walks with the boy. They shared a delight in Suffolk dialect. The Major also collected Eastern gods. Squire Jenny, short, jolly with big ears was a not untypical Victorian eccentric who let snow blow in through his ever open windows to drift in piles on his uncarpeted floors. His sister kept house, parsimoniously.

In 1818, no longer called Purcell, he was sent to King Edward VI Grammar School in Bury St Edmunds. James Spedding, who later edited the works of Bacon, was there. They remained friends for life. In 1826 he went to Trinity College, Cambridge. Thackeray was there. Towards the end of his own life Thackeray said FitzGerald was his oldest and best friend — in spite of the fact that he was an extreme extravert (who in the end could write only in public places) while FitzGerald was the exact opposite. A year or two later FitzGerald met the three Tennyson boys. Asked when he was nearing his own end who had been the friend he loved most, Alfred Tennyson replied: "Why, old Fitz, to be sure."

At University, he settled into his lifelong dilettante ways, pottering, dabbling, picking up and putting down the classics, water colours, music, poetry, without any system or aim. Already, too, he was unkempt, dishevelled and badly clothed. When his mother called (in a coach and four) he had no boots to wear to meet her. He was, of course, well off (Carlyle claimed he gave Tennyson at least three hundred pounds a year at this time). After going down, with a degree, he began a drifting life; parties, visits, travel, breakfasts, the theatre. He was in Paris with Thackeray who shouldn't have been there, and lied about it.

Two new friendships at this time were to bring him pain and trouble further down the line. William Browne was a Bedfordshire man and, like Housman's friend Moses Jackson, a hearty riding, shooting, and fishing type. Bernard Barton worked in a bank in Woodbridge; he was a Quaker, a poet, and art collector (he had two Cotmans). As a friend of Lamb and Southey he was older than FitzGerald who was around the same age as his daughter, Lucy, the cause of future problems. In 1835 he and Tennyson joined Spedding at his parent's house at Bassenthwaite in the Lake District. He tells us Tennyson was too sulky to visit Wordsworth in nearby Grasmere. (Wordsworth's brother, Christopher, was Master of Trinity.)

Then, in 1837, FitzGerald anchored himself permanently in Suffolk where his father had recently bought Boulge Park by the River Deben. FitzGerald took over a two-roomed lodge in the grounds. He had a bust of Shakespeare, a dog, cat, Beauty Bob (a parrot), and two servants: an old soldier who'd served at Waterloo, and his snuff-taking wife. All that and a barrel of beer. The place was a shambles, and he was unshaven and slovenly. "What will become of him in this world?" Spedding asked.

The coast of Suffolk is flat and the River Deben is tidal as far as Woodbridge although it's around ten miles from the sea. (The name has more to do with Woden than timber) In the sixteenthth and seventeenthth centuries it was a ship-building sea port. By Queen Victoria's time it was a back-water, visited maybe by Thames barges and yawls with cargoes of grain for the tide mill. In 1859 the railway reached the town, but to this day it is not all that easy to get to.

George Crabbe had been the eighteenth-century poet of that coast and his son, also called George, was vicar of Bredfield. He was another eccentric. "Noble-minded, rash . . . . and liable to sudden and violent emotions," Benson says of him. His daughters emptied his pockets before they let him out of the house to stop him giving all their money away. He quickly became another good friend. It's said, though it seems unlikely, that FitzGerald proposed to the eldest daughter. If he did, she said no, although she was with him when he died, in 1883, in her father's house. That, though, was nearly forty years away. Meanwhile he continued an annual summertime drift for the next ten years (there is a pattern throughout his life of ten year spans). Part of most summers he spent with Browne in Bedfordshire. Once he visited Dublin with him to see his own Purcell cousins and meet the novelist Maria Edgeworth (in Edgeworthtown) whose brother he'd known in Cambridge. Once, in London, he took a drive with Dickens, Thackeray, and Tennyson; all four in the same carriage.

In 1842 he met Carlyle. Carlyle had recently been with Dr Arnold to the Civil War battlefield at Naseby in Northamptonshire researching his book, Cromwell. Cromwell, of course, was one of FitzGerald's ancestors and, as it happened, FitzGerald's father owned the estate where the battle had taken place in 1645. He'd erected an obelisk to mark the site of the fiercest fighting. Unfortunately it was in the wrong place and Carlyle and Arnold had got themselves excited over air space through which neither Cromwell's Ironsides nor Prince Rupert's Cavaliers had ever ridden. FitzGerald obliged them by pointing out the real site, even digging up the bones of fallen musketeers and pikemen. "In the intervals of the task," Benson writes, "he read the Georgics, and watched the horses plodding and clanking out to the harvest-fields, up the lanes with their richly twined tapestries of briony and bind-weed."

It was around this time, too, that Fitzgerald, a lifelong agnostic, came closest to accepting Christianity. His oldest brother, John, whose eccentricity verged on madness, was a fervent evangelical given to threatening country folk with eternal terror. His friend, a Reverend Matthews of Bedford, was a hell-fire revivalist preacher of some power. Like Wesley, like Bunyan, he preached in the open air, blowing a trumpet to attract the crowds. Sometimes he baptised converts in the lake which fed the canal near Naseby. "His sermons," FitzGerald confessed, "shook my soul." But the effect didn't last.

A new friendship in 1846 with the man who introduced him to Persian and Omar Khayyam had a more lasting effect. Edward Cowell was the twenty-year-old son of an Ipswich corn merchant. Benson says he was shy, amusing, modest, simple, and deeply religious. He married an older woman of private means He spoke Spanish, Sanskrit and Farsi (or Persian as it was then more commonly called). FitzGerald visited the Cowells in Ipswich where they would sit in the garden (with its monkey puzzle tree and path leading to a mill) reading Spanish, Persian, and Greek. Mrs Cowell wrote poetry, FitzGerald criticised it. When he moved to Oxford, Cowell came across a manuscript in the Bodleian of Omar Khayyam's verses written in purple-black ink on yellow paper powdered all over with gold. He gave a transcript to FitzGerald. All his fame was to be tied up in the poem yet, typically, he did nothing with it for another ten years. Benson, in fact, suggests it was only the traumas of the 1850s — FitzGerald's worst decade emotionally — which got him writing at all. His bibliography is short; ten works in total (not counting reprints and revisions), six of which came out between 1849 and 1859. Poems and Letters by Bernard Barton was published 1849. Euphrenor (his only original work; a Platonic dialogue between Cambridge students, famous in his own day only for its purple-passage ending) came out in 1851. Polonius: a Collection of Wise Saws and Modern Instances (in fact excerpts from writers such as Bacon, Newman, and Carlyle) 1852. Six plays from the Spanish of Calderon, 1853. Jami's Salaman and Absal (the volume also included Attar's Bird Parliament) from the Persian,1856. And above all The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, also from the Persian, 1859.

Just before Barton died, in 1849, FitzGerald promised to care for his daughter, Lucy. Lucy took this to mean marriage. FitzGerald didn't but, diffident as ever, didn't make it plain. As usual he put off a decision, for six years in this case. Meanwhile, his father's digging for coal on his Lancashire estate ended in 1851 with his own ruin and that of Squire Jenny who'd invested with him. Both old men died within a few months. The Squire's ancient woods were felled to pay off his debts. FitzGerald's allowance stopped but, because his mother had always been the richer of the two parents. it didn't affect him too badly. Perhaps temporary drop in income induced him to agree to marry Lucy because he couldn't afford to pay an allowance. The wedding, however, was still five years away.

Even then things were not too bad (FitzGerald never had really hard times). His brother John, the evangelical, inherited Boulge. To get away from him FitzGerald moved a few miles into lodgings with a farmer, called Job Smith, in Farlingay Hall. There were just the five of them: Job, his wife and son, and a maid who dropped the tea pot when she curtsied in the morning. FitzGerald was contented enough. He bought a boat. Carlyle invited himself to stay. "I hope to get to Farlingay not long after four o'clock," he wrote, "and have a quiet mutton chop in due time and have a ditto pipe or pipes: nay, I could even bathe if there was any sea water left in the evening." (Probably there was: there still is).

In 1854 his mother died leaving him with an income of around a thousand pounds a year at a time when you could raise a family on a hundred. Two years later the Cowells sailed for India where he'd been appointed Professor of History, and the long-put-off marriage to Lucy took place in Chichester followed by a honeymoon in Brighton and domesticity in Great Portland Street in London. The new Mrs FitzGerald wanted convention, dinner parties, calling cards and stately drives in the park. Her husband was a dyed-in-the-wool eccentric. They separated after a fortnight, then tried living together again in house overlooking Regent's Park. FitzGerald was utterly depressed but shunnned conflict. They then tried Yarmouth, after which FitzGerald gave up — he just never went back to her. (Years later they passed each other in Lowestoft, but he was too embarrassed to speak.) She had an allowance and eventually settled in Croydon, then a village outside London. "I am very much to blame," he said later, "both on the score of stupidity in taking so wrong a step, and want of courageous principle in not making the best of it when taken. . . . She was born to rule," he added.

By now he was in late forties and friends were getting old. Crabbe died, probably of a stroke, in 1857. William Browne (perhaps the man he loved most) was crushed by his horse on the hunting field. FitzGerald went to Bedfordshire but at first squeamishly shrank from seeing him. When he did, Browne was barely able to speak or move his hands. He died after nine weeks of paralysed agony.

It was in 1857 in the middle of all this that he turned to Omar Khayyam and his Rubiayat. FitzGerald's Spanish was shaky, his Persian worse. Without Cowell the translation would probably never have got done. He questioned him by mail in India and even then said: "I am not always quite certain of getting the right sow by the ear". He kept a list of queries as he worked through the day. By 1859 the book was ready. First he offered a few hand-picked verses to Fraser's (the magazine was for family reading). The editor, John Parker, kept the manuscript for a whole year without replying. FitzGerald then printed two hundred and fifty copies, anonymously, sending most of them to Bernard Quaritchs bookshop' in London. Quaritch sold not a single copy for two years until he dumped them in the penny box on the pavement outside. A man called Whitley Stokes bought two for Rossetti and Richard Burton, the orientalist and explorer. Rossetti bought some for Browning and Swinburne. Swinburne bought them for Burne-Jones and George Meredith. In time, Ruskin got a copy. He wrote to the unknown author: "I do not know in the least who you are but I do with all my soul pray you to find and translate some more of Omar Khayyam." Apparently he asked Burne-Jones to send it on, though of course B-J knew no more about the anonymous author than he did. (Nobody, it seems, thought to ask Quaritch.) It was delivered twelve years later.

In time The Rubaiyat became the best selling translation of a poem in English, possibly the best selling poem in English ever. Omar Khayyam Clubs sprang up all over England (and in America). Conan Doyle, Edmund Gosse and Arthur Pinero belonged to the same one in London. They were pretty lively places by all accounts. Chesterton thought the book was wicked. Browning wrote "Rabbi Ben Ezra" in reply to it, it is said . As late as the 1950s young men often got it off by heart. Perhaps it needs a stable, safe society for its rebelliousness to have an impact. It is "Savage against Destiny", FitzGerald said of it, "Epicurean in its Pathos." It is what everybody feels at the bottom of their hearts — turned into music. Benson thought it the most beautiful expression of agnosticism, and the Epicureanism which comes with it.

It made no difference to FitzGerald's life. In 1860, now fifty-one, he moved into rooms above the gun-maker's shop in Woodbridge market. Job Smith moved to Sutton Hoo where, unknown to everybody, an Anglo-Saxon burial ship would be found seventy-odd years later in the 1930s. FitzGerald bought a sea-going yacht called The Scandal (the staple of conversation in Woodbridge), marvelling at how his skipper never stopped smiling though the father of twins. He took to the water, he said, because the country all around was the graveyard of his friends, and the new generation of landowners was destroying the landscape to make money. Sailing to Aldburgh was a favourite trip He still delighted in the speech of country people: a sailor said of his boat that she "go like a wiolin" and "all is calm as a clock" after a gale had dropped.

In 1864, the year before he brought out his translation of Æschylus (anonymously — as most of his work was), he bought a farmhouse near Woodbridge, and then, typically, left it empty for ten years, apart for workmen who added rooms and walls and then knocked them again at his whim. Six acres were planted with a wood. That year too he made a friend of a Lowestoft fisherman called �Posh' Fletcher. "This is altogether the Greatest Man I have known," he said of him, idealising him as a leader of men of the finest Saxon type. "A man," FitzGerald added, "of simplicity of soul, justice of thought, tenderness of nature, a gentleman of Nature's grandest type." ("It must be confessed," Benson said, "that a good deal of sentimentality was wasted over this sea-lion.") FitzGerald built him a herring lugger, The Meum and Tuum.

His brother, John, still master of Boulge, grew odder and odder, more fervent in his preaching. He kept a clock in every room then rang for his valet when he wanted to know the time. But Cowell, now Professor of Sanskrit in Cambridge, had come back from India and their friendship picked up again. In the 1870s, what zest he ever had for life was fading. He was cheered for a while by the diagnosis of a heart disease which might take him off in an instant. His old friend Spedding finally brought his work on Bacon to an end. "I always look upon old Spedding's as one of the most wasted lives I know," he said.

Not all his friends were men. He loved the actress Fanny Kemble (1809-1893) 'sincerely', if not her acting on the stage. The affection was mutual; in 1875, when they were both sixty-six, she wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly so fulsome that he pasted paper over some of the worse paragraphs. Around this time, as well, he moved into his farmhouse, propelled by eviction from his lodgings. His landlord, Mr Berry, got engaged to a widow. "Old Berry would now have to be called Old Gooseberry," he observed. The widow got to hear of it, he had to go. On eviction day she stood at the foot of the stairs calling up: "Be firm, Berry! Remind him of what he called you."

In the farmhouse, he lived in the downstairs parlour, divided by folding doors. The organ, which he played from memory without sheet music, was in the hall. The living room was his library. The rest of the house, with added rooms, was furnished and open at all times to his nieces, though they rarely met. By now he was very set in his ways. Benson says of him:

FitzGerald's habits were absolutely simple; his only plan of action was to do what he liked, and not be bothered. In earlier years he had rambled further afield; but in the quiet days at Woodbridge or Lowestoft, he would spend the morning over books and papers, or write a leisurely letter; he would stroll about, looking at flowers and trees, listening to the voices of birds, talking to his simple acquaintances. Sometimes he would go out in a boat, and gossip with the boatmen. He seems to have had no fixed times for work, but took it up when it pleased his fancy. His books lay all about him in confusion; he had not a large library � some thousand volumes � and he was fond of pulling out leaves which he thought otiose. Sometimes, if the fancy took him, he would call on a neighbour; when he came home he would play his organ or sing to himself. Then he would go to his books again, and, before his eye sight failed, would read or write; smoke a pipe, and go to bed.

After his sight began to go, a local boy read to him of an evening. Benson writes: "Here he sits, in a dry month, old and blind, being read to by a country boy, longing for rain." (Turned by T. S. Eliot in "Gerontion" into: "Here I am, an old man in a dry month/Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.") He sat by the fire place in a dressing gown, slippered feet on the fender, wearing a top hat (from which he occasionally took a red silk handkerchief), snuff box in his hand, stroking his beard with a paper-knife. Tennyson visited, with his son, in 1876. Thinking he'd be uncomfortable in the old farmhouse FitzGerald put them in the Bull in the market square opposite the Shire Hall. They hadn't met for twenty years but he still told Tennyson he should have stopped writing thirty-four years ago when he ceased to be a poet and became an artist. Tennyson, in return, wrote an affectionate poem, published in "Tiresias," about him sitting under his garden apple tree.

Things were closing in on him now. In 1879, his brother John died. What was left of their father's estates in Lancashire and Suffolk were finally sold out of the family. He was almost teetotal, almost a vegetarian (almost because out of courtesy he ate meat in other people's houses). At home he lived on apples, pears, bread, sometimes a turnip, cheese, and milk pudding. Tea was his favourite meal, at least in company, with country butter and bread. He smoked a clay pipe — presumably a long churchwarden — which he broke into pieces after a single use. He loved colours — bright curtains and carpets, butterflies, moths and birds. He kept a multi-coloured mop for years as a kind of sculptural ornament. He loved birdsong (except the nightingale, which should be in bed like everybody else), "church bells, the wind in the trees, rattle of ropes, the sharp hiss of the sea."

He was a tall unkempt man in baggy sailor-blue clothes. In hot weather he carried his shoes on a stick over his shoulder. One woman observed he was proud, but not too proud to carry his boots to the cobblers to be mended. He was not popular with local people who called him soft in the head and dotty. He could also be peevish, pettish, grumpy, intolerant of having his comfort or habits disturbed, tetchy, and even bad-tempered. He could be cutting. The rector once called to ask him why he was never in church. "Sir," said FitzGerald, "you might have conceived that a man has not come to my years without thinking much on those things. I believe you may say that I have reflected on them fully. You need not repeat this visit." Another time he asked the local bookseller to dinner. When the man arrived, FitzGerald turned him from the door. "I saw you yesterday," he wrote next morning, "but I was not fit for company, and felt that I could not be bothered."

He was active to his last day, troubled by bronchitis but pottering in his garden, playing the organ, occasionally putting to sea in other people's boats. His translation of Sophocles (Œdipus) came out in 1880 and '81. In 1883 he published his last book — Readings from Crabbe. That last summer, 1883, his nieces shared the farmhouse. In a letter dated 12th June he says he was going the next day to visit the latest George Crabbe, the grandson of the poet. He died in bed in his friend's house early in the morning of the 14th. The words on his tomb in Boulge read: "It is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves." A curious epitaph for an agnostic.

FitzGerald was a man for small things; vignettes and glimpses, impressions. Big things like the work of Milton, Browning or Thackeray were too much for him. In music he preferred Handel — simple but grand. He had a strong sense of lachyrmae rerum — tears for things, the sadness of things, "the endless pathos of the world." His delight in small things and their pathos — the glance of sunlight on a leaf, caught and then gone — was spoiled by knowing it couldn't last. He was unwilling to suffer, Benson believed, and so couldn't write great poetry — except once, in The Rubaiyat when he faced up to the darkness below life. He read, Benson said, to deaden pain.

Benson also claimed he had the insight for lyrical poetry but not the words. If he didn't write nature poetry, the makings of it are certainly in his letters. One June in a letter to Cowell he describes the greenness outside his bedroom window, the scent of hay, the sound of whetstone on scythe, and the roses already passing away. His feeling for things was deep. Here are three quotations from letters to friends, the first in 1842:

I get radishes to eat for breakfast of a morning: with them comes a savour of earth that brings all the delicious gardens of the world back into one's soul, and almost draws tears from my eyes.

The trees murmur a continuous soft chorus to the solo which my soul discourses in.

There's no sea like the Aldburgh Sea. It talks to me.

Something could have been made of all this, I suspect, if he'd had the temperament to work at it. Perhaps his spiritual home was not Victorian England, or 12th century Persia. Rather it was seventeenth-century Japan where you can see him as a haijin, or haiku poet, walking the long "road to a far province." In reality, though, it's hard to imagine him far from rural Suffolk, made irascible by the clock in Woodbridge church tower playing "Oh, where is my soldier laddie gone?" every fifteen minutes of every slow country day.

Related Material


Benson, A C. Edward FitzGerald. MacMillan.London. 1905.

FitzGerald, Edward.Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, edited with an introduction by Dick Davis. Penguin. London.1989.

FitzGerald, Edward.Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. HYPERLINK "http://www.gutenberg.org/text/246" www.gutenberg.org/text/246 (First Edition)

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs. Penguin. London. 1979

Last modified 16 February 2008